Socially responsible retrenchments?

A week after I wrote an article for The Online Citizen about the DBS retrenchments opining that “a company’s first social responsibility ought to be to its employees”, the government has now come forward to say companies should be “socially responsible” when retrenching staff. On first glance, it sounded like what I was asking for.

I was wrong.

What the Acting Manpower Minister meant when he said “socially responsible” is this: Firstly, companies can inform the Manpower Ministry of job cuts; Secondly, they can seek the union’s help in explaining measures like wage cuts or implementing shorter work week. In fact, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will be releasing some “guidelines” in a few weeks on “how to manage excess manpower”.

Knowing how pro-business our government is, and judging from their current definition of “socially responsible retrenchments”, I shudder to think of what these guidelines are going to contain. Most of it will probably centre around how to manage the retrenchment and communication process. Like informing the unions maybe a few days earlier (consultation and negotiations optional), and providing counselling for retrenched staff.

I wonder if the guidelines will contain advice to profitable companies which have enjoyed many good years to build up their war chest, that they should not be considering retrenchments at this time. This was the main thrust of my article and is what I define as a socially responsible corporation.

I agree that in dire economic times like these, some companies will have no choice to retrench to stay afloat. But I think the government fails in its duty to its citizens when it puts the obscene profitability of large GLCs and MNCs ahead of people’s livelihood.

Of course, the government’s counter argument will be that if these companies go bankrupt and shut down, then even more people will lose their jobs.

Let’s cut the hyperbole. DBS, with $1.67 billion in net earnings this year alone, is not about to turn turtle. Such retrenchments could have been avoided, period.

Sure, the government has no legal power to order commercial enterprises not to retrench staff (since our employment laws are so weak), but their statements have an almost equally strong effect on companies who are always eager to remain in the government’s good books. Ambiguous signals like this latest statement from the Acting Manpower Minister only serve to embolden large corporations to think they can willy nilly cut staff as long as the process is communicated properly from a PR standpoint.


Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

5 thoughts on “Socially responsible retrenchments?”

  1. In concept, I agree with you entirely. We need to protect our local workforce more.

    The problem is that too much legislation detracts from a nation’s competitive advantage. Companies naturally prefer ‘open’ business environments that are easy to operate in.

    A genuine trade union would be an excellent instrument in protecting worker’s rights without imposing undue legislation. However, the power wielded by trade unions is another factor MNCs do not want to deal with.

    Singaporeans are considered a ‘natural resource’, and as is the case with natural resources, they are simply there to be used.

    Sad but true.

    Singapore is in a compromising situation that makes it difficult to protect workers’ rights while maintaining global competitiveness.

    Perhaps it’s time Singaporeans come forward with a uniquely Singaporean solution.

  2. Trade Unionism is a contradiction in terms in the Singapore context.

    There is NOTHING to stop companies from legally firing excess workers. Have you not heard of stories of banks putting tellers living in the West to branches in the East to avoid retrenching them as the employee will tender their resignation and hence save the company retrenchment benefits?

  3. While being influenced by, and meeting the needs of, the finance community, we should stop pursuing an ideology of neoliberal “market fundamentalism” and pay attention to real human needs. The definition of progress and success of a nation cannot be measured in material terms alone; there are other factors which must be considered such as environmental issues and perspectives of emotional richness or social well being.

    My thoughts on Neoliberalism here: http://singaporesocialactivist.blogspot.com/2008/11/poor-examples-for-pro-establishment.html

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